Whatever monster he may have been, Perse had to admit the late Mayor Brown had great taste in art.
“This is a statue of the Aztec God Tezcatlipoca,” Samantha explained, showing her off a stone representation of a humanoid jaguar. The precision astonished Perse. Each claw, each fang, had benefited from exquisite, masterful attention to detail. As if the sculptor had stood before the deity as if it was real. “Stolen by the Conquistadors during the conquest of Mexico. My great-grandfather brought it back from Europe after the first World War.”
She wore a new golden dress with a blue rose above the left breast, and was wearing a new brand of perfume. Perse was slightly jealous at how amazing she looked. So pristine, so pure. Like an angel.
“Still surprised the scalies didn’t confiscate everything,” Maggie said as she walked next to the duo, her hands behind her head. In contrast to Perse and Sam’s keen fashion sense, she always dressed with whatever came to mind.
Sam bristled at that. “Don’t call them that.” Even after they released her, she had confessed to Perse she still worried about being under surveillance. “They froze most of Dad’s assets, and my employees left. I can no longer pay them even if they wanted to return.”
“So you’re all alone there?” Perse asked. Such a big place without anyone…
“No. Not alone. Not anymore.” Samantha smiled at her friends. “Kari is extending her stay now.”
“Where is she, by the way?” Perse prodded, fearing the answer.
“Occupying Matt, as agreed,” Sam replied. “We have two good hours ahead of us.”
Perse didn’t like it. Kari looked a bit too close to Matt for her liking. She had seen them exchange glances, as if communicating without talking, the same way old friends did. No, Perse, don’t be the annoying jealous girl, that always backfires.
Unfortunately, her friends quickly caught on to her thoughts. “Maybe I should poach Matt too,” Maggie teased Perse. “He’s got a lot more social value now.”
“Don’t you dare, Maggie,” Perse warned her. “Mine.”
“Relax, Little P, girl code comes first.”
“Aren’t you dating Perse’s brother?” Sam pushed.
Maggie grumbled, “Big mistake. He’s grown sour and dull, and it’s getting on my nerves. I didn’t sign on for that.”
Perse let out a sigh. Her brother always found a way to fail the amazing girls she set him up with. “I swear, he’s going to end up alone for the prom.”
“Maybe he should date Sam instead,” Maggie replied, hitting the blonde’s elbrow.
“Maggie!” Perse crossed her arms at her insensitivity. “She just lost Jack, that’s too soon.”
Maggie’s face turned dark at her brother’s mention. Why does she look so angry? Perse thought. Shouldn’t she have been mourning her missing brother?
“It’s okay,” Sam replied. “Truthfully, we weren’t that close. We never went further than making-out.”
“Really?” Perse could hardly believe it. But they had been together for months! “You didn’t…”
“We didn’t. I tried but, he never showed interest in that. I had to make the first move at every turn. I don’t think he was into displays of affection, or affection at all.”
“My brother was an asshole,” Maggie spat with venom.
“That’s harsh,” Sam said, although not with much feeling, “Let’s not speak ill of a missing person.”
Maggie looked ready to blurt out something angry, only to restrain herself. “Whatever. You would be better off with Perse’s brother. He’s halfway decent.”
Feeling the conversation had taken a dark turn, Perse tried to move it towards more positivity. “Sam, is the cake ready?”
“It’s in still in the oven,” she replied, glancing through a window to the garden outside. Ulysses and Perse’s mom had almost finished putting up the table outside in the garden. While her brother had accepted to come and help, he looked sourer than usual.
Whatever the hell happened between him and Matt, she hoped today would help mend the rift.
“You sure we shouldn’t have invited more people?” Samantha asked. For her the few participants present at the party looked like a failed party.
“Sure. Matt prefers family or small gatherings.” He was adorably shy that way. The ringbell interrupted the conversation, Samantha moving to open the door without checking who it was. As a consummate organizer, she had monitored every participant to ensure they did their task; she had probably guessed who it was on the planning alone.
“Hello girls.” Mathias’ dad stepped inside — or was it new stepdad? Perse wasn’t so sure what to call him now. He carried bags full of drinks and snacks. “I see that everything went well, Samantha.”
“You’re right on time, Mr. Martel. Only Gavin and Mr. Nicholae have yet to show up.”
“Solomon will come later. He told me on the phone he had a problem guest staying at his church and needed to accommodate him.” Maggie’s head perked up at it, before picking up one of Victor’s bag to help him. “Thank you.”
“He doesn’t suspect a thing?” Perse asked Victor.
He answered with a laugh. “No. I can’t believe my son forgot his own birthday. His eighteenth at that.”
Perse wasn’t surprised. Matt his the head in the clouds lately, with too much on his mind.
He should have tried something special for the occasion, though. Perse’s own party four months ago had been an epic, blazing trail of drunken revelry across Evermarsh — even Ulysses and Matt had been pulled into the maelstrom. A special day like that meant playing harder than usual.
Now that I think of it, I’m older than Matt. Perse thought. People often thought otherwise, since he acted more mature than her. Acting being the keyword — while Perse could be scatterbrained sometimes, she wanted to enjoy her youth for as long as possible.
She would have to play adult enough after graduation. “Sam, since we have time to kill, perhaps you could show us that new room of yours?” Her friend had pestered her with plans of redecoration for weeks.
“With pleasure!” Sam smiled, her hand grabbing her friend’s arm.
“I’ll pass,” Maggie said as Mathias’ dad opened the large window to join the others in the garden. “I would rather be outdoors.” None of the girls tried to argue with Maggie; she was too stubborn
Perse looked on as her mom welcomed Mathias’ dad with a kiss on the mouth, smiling like a teenage girl. The sight filled her heart with conflicted feelings; happiness at her mom trying to rebuild her life, sadness at having not seen her real dad for years, and a slight dash of a strange, bizarre anxiety she could not quite explain. Perse wondered if children dating at the same time as their parents was a common occurrence.
Samantha looked at the couple too, but with decidedly less warmth. With renewed tension, she led her friend past an hallway and towards exquisite wooden stairs.
“Thanks for letting us use your house,” Perse thanked her best friend, as they climbed to the floor above. Her own place was too small to welcome a dozen people.
“After the favor Matt showed us, I had to respond in kind.” The first floor of the house held various paintings, mostly in the Renaissance style. Many of them represented angels, demons, and apocalyptic imagery. More of a fan of abstract art, Perse didn’t like them. “How odd we ended up growing closer. Not to criticize him, but I always saw Matt as your quiet, strange friend. I never really paid attention to him before.”
Thankfully, or else she would have noticed his crush on her sooner. Perse had learned her lesson; seize the initiative whenever possible. “He never made an effort to stand out much.” Attention made Matt uncomfortable, unless he played a role. Then he shined brightly. Perse guessed a part of him yearned to be a different person, one that could express deep feelings he couldn’t show under normal circumstances.
She wasn’t so different herself. In fact, she had been as quiet as her boyfriend when she had been in grad school. It was only through effort that she came out of her shell. “It takes time to realize that people often like what you have to say,” she declared.
Samantha’s smile didn’t reach her lips. Like it was photoshopped. “I understand.”
Sam’s fake smile broke. “Understanding?”
“Faking it. If you don’t find it funny or don’t understand you don’t have to lie.”
Samantha kept her face fixed. “I’m sorry, I do it on reflex now.” Perse figured her asshole of a dad had drilled the need to appear impeccable in any circumstance. “I didn’t understand.”
“When you’re shy, you think everyone will put down what you have to say. Because you think you’re not interesting, and so neither is what you say. It takes effort to convince yourself otherwise.”
“Aren’t we all interesting in our own way?” Perse could tell Samantha had grown uncomfortable with the subject. “Does Ulysses play chess? I have a game in storage.”
“Ulysses does play online. Matt is more fond of go.”
“I know, he told me. I do not understand why though. I thought since he enjoyed tactical games, he would like chess.”
“It’s because go is like guerilla warfare, while chess is like traditional warfare.” Seeing Samantha fully absorbed in her explanation, Perse kept going. Her friend’s fondness for strategy games bordered on obsession sometimes. “Chess is offensive, fast-paced, tactical, and attrition-based. Go is more strategic, more long-term. It’s all about controlling territory, subtly encircling the enemy, and then moving in for a devastating offensive the opponent cannot recover from. I think Matt likes that way of thinking more than the traditional approach.”
And it showed in the games he designed. Fucking goblin ambushes.
Samantha smiled, genuinely this time. “You sound like a strategy book.”
“I can’t let my boyfriend win too much, can I?” So far victories were two to one in Matt’s favor, but Perse had gained ground. “Although I prefer playing Poker.”
“Poker? It has nothing to do with table games.”
“Of course it does. It’s tactical, psychological. You have to manage your funds, anticipate the enemy…”
“It’s not a strategy game if luck is involved,” Samantha insisted. She sounded like those internet purists on forums, decrying others over details. The contrast between her mature voice and behavior was adorable.
“Of course it is, that’s the whole point. I mean, life is so chaotic, with so many unexpected events. You can’t control everything, and that’s what makes it great.”
“I don’t like the idea.” Samantha stopped before her bedroom’s large mahogany door. “Not knowing what comes next.”
“Then why are you so interested anytime you notice something new?”
While Samantha didn’t answer, Perse knew her well. Her body language told her she had struck a nerve.
As Samantha opened the door and invited her friend in, Perse couldn’t shake a strange feeling of wrongness. The musician prided herself in her intuition, which had never let her down, and right now she couldn’t put a finger on that gnawing, ever-present feeling in the back of his mind.
Samantha’s bedroom was, fitting with the rest of the place, a princess’ cherished retreat. Most of Perse’s apartment could fit inside. The bed was king-sized, the place perfumed and clean, and multiple portraits of butterflies adorned the walls. Closed velvet curtains gave the room a transgressive, sensual feel, far away from Sam’s idealized image of purity.
“Why all the butterfly imagery?” Perse asked, her eyes settling on Samantha’s brooch among her golden hair.
“Butterflies start weak and helpless. They are constrained by their very nature, until one day they undergo a metamorphosis. Then they take beautiful flight; they become beautiful, if only for a short time. I find the image powerful.”
And Perse had thought she just liked the aesthetic. Sometimes she had the feeling she didn’t really know Sam very well. “Kinda stands out compared to the paintings before.”
“Dad’s. He had grown obsessed with angels and demons months ago.”
Had it inspired his madness, or had it been a symptom? Perse didn’t know. “Why do you keep them?”
“Because that’s all I have left of him.”
“Sam, your father was a monster. No good can come out of keeping reminders of him.”
“I know!” Her voice broke a little. “But he was still Dad.”
Perse didn’t push further. While her friend presented an air of calmness, she knew she was boiling inside.
Samantha turned around to face her friend, her eyes lingering on her makeup. Without a word, she let her fingers brush against Perse’s dress. “You dressed so well for him.” Samantha stared at her friend dead in the eyes. “Like a birthday present.”
Was that sadness in her voice? Sadness that Perse had made the first move? No, it was something else, something deeper.
“Sam.” Perse slowly pushed her friend back. “Sam, are you alright?”
“What do you have that I don’t?”
The tone alone made Perse take a step back, as if she had been slapped. Sam had daggers in her eyes.
“You’re self-centered and whimsy. Pursuing one person and then dropping them for another within a week. So why do you get to have a happy boyfriend while my entire life crashes and burns?”
The words hit Perse like a knife in the back.
Then, much to her astonishment, Samantha started sobbing. She fell on the bed, holding her face with both hands, looking destroyed. Samantha Brown, the girl who once had had everything, was crying.
“Why does everyone like you without you doing anything to deserve it? You’re loud and brash, and still everyone looks at you! While I try so hard and still feel miserable…”
She’s doesn’t mean that, Perse thought, trying to maintain emotional distance. Her parents are dead, she just needs time to process it.
Perse’s composure almost failed her when Sam looked at her with bitter, undying resentment. “Why do you have a family left? Why?” All of that practiced pristine had crumbled, revealing the envy and rage boiling underneath. Her shadow, the ugliest part of herself, spoke through her lips.
It hurt, a lot. Especially since Perse had done nothing to deserve those accusations. She had suspected Sam had issues, but could never break through her friend’s armor; now it had crumbled, and it was an ugly sight. “Sam—”
“My parents divorced while I was still in grade school,” Perse replied, her tone firmer and calmer. “I can’t pretend the situations are similar, but I know how losing part of your family feels. It’s like losing a foundation you based your life upon. You feel rage and anger, and you try to vent it out however you can. Music was that escape for me.”
Samantha replied with a glare. “I always hated you,” she said, her voice dripping with venom. “Always upstaging me.”
“I don’t think so,” Perse replied. “I think you hated yourself.”
“Hated myself?” Instead of envy, anger had come to the forefront. But it still jolted Samantha out of her self-pity.
“I never got the feeling you did anything because you actually enjoyed it. It was always one-upping someone else. Always for show. You never lived for yourself, Sam. You just put on a performance for others, especially your father. That’s why you feel miserable; because I remind you of that fact.”
Perhaps Samantha had already came to the same conclusion before; whatever the case, Perse’s words resonated with her, the girl stopping to glare at her fellow bandmate to look at her feet, despondent.
“Sam.” Perse sat at Samantha’s side, making the blonde girl tremble at the physical proximity. “You’ve got amazing talent, more than I have. You’re so smart, and you’ve got wonderful opportunities ahead of you. Just… be genuine. Try to show everyone the real you, even the ugly parts. Like now. You don’t have to smile all the time.”
“Is gone! And I’m sorry to say it, but he had it coming. You don’t have to prove anything to that asshole, ever again. Start being genuine, Sam. It really does wonders, and I tell that to you as a friend.”
Sam raised her head. “Even after what I said, you still consider me a friend?”
“Eh, it’s okay. After so much drama in my relationships, I learned a little wisdom from it. I just don’t show it often.” She winked at Sam. “Promise me you will talk to me about your problems next time, instead of bottling it up, and we’re good.”
“I… I will try.” She wiped some tears off her face. “I’m sorry. About what I said.” Perse let her continue, muting out her desire to talk back to go into full understanding listener mode. “I… I’ve been horrible. You’ve always supported me, and I’ve been ungrateful about it. That’s low.”
“It’s okay. Now if you had done that two months ago I would be really, really pissed, but I’m in a good place right now.”
Someone coughed at the door, interrupting the heartfelt moment. “Ahem.” Victor waited at the bedroom’s entrance. “Am I interrupting?”
“No,” Perse replied, standing up alongside Sam. The latter had regained her composure, although her tears had damaged her make-up a little. “We’re done.”
Victor looked at both of them, yet didn’t ask for an elaboration. “Your boyfriend is waiting downstairs, Samantha.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend.” Samantha paused, a doubt settling in her mind. “Wait, who is it?”
Perse had guessed before Victor confirmed it.
“Jack. Jack Powells. Very polite and cheerful for a missing person. He’s downstairs—”
The sound of a gunshot echoed from outside.
“What was that?” Perse panicked.
“It came from the garden!” Victor bolted out of the room, Perse and Sam hurriedly following him.
“What the hell is wrong with you, Maggie!?” Viviane shouted downstairs.
“— that’s pretty effed up, sister,” a familiar voice spoke, bemused.
The group went down the stairs and ran into the garden. The sight looked straight out of a western.
Maggie was on her feet, wielding a gun with murder in her eyes. A gun! Viviane had risen to try to take it from her, but stayed at bay, her face pale. Ulysses, that uncaring jerk, sat right next to Mom texting on his phone.
And standing farther among the garden’s alien flowers, Maggie’s gun pointed at his head, was Jack.
He had changed since Perse last met him. Not much physically. He wore sunglasses over his eyes, and taken to wearing a crimson red shirt that showcased his muscles underneath, and black pants. He smelled of sour, rusted iron.
No. What had changed was his posture, the way he stood. It reminded Perse of those maddened roman emperor statues. Contemptuously looking down on everyone else like shit. His whole being put Perse on edge. Like she was a tiger among sheep.
Perse had no idea what happened, except that the situation was wrong and explosive. “Jack,” Samantha put her hands on her mouth in surprise, “We thought you were dead.”
“No, no, not dead, sweetheart. Reborn, like a phoenix.” His voice had grown deeper, like cackling embers. “Good to see you, though. I wondered if I would feel anything when I saw you again. Now I know.”
A thin, cruel smile spread across his lips.
Something in Jack’s words set Victor on edge, as he pulled Samantha and Perse by the arm behind him. “Viviane, Ulysses, behind me.”
“Behind me,” Victor cut off Viviane. Taking a clue out of his firm tone, she grabbed Ulysses and forced him off his chair. Maggie didn’t move, though, keeping her weapon aimed at her brother.
“Why so afraid, Vic?” If anything, the sight bemused Jack. “I heard your son held his birthday party here, so I thought I might bring some candles. As a gift.”
“Very nice of you,” Victor replied icily, pushing Viviane behind him like a bear protecting his cubs. The sight put Perse on edge too. What the hell was happening?
“Where is my boy, Matt, by the way?” Jack pushed. “Breaking windows? Can’t start the party without him.”
“I knew it would happen,” Ulysses mumbled. “I knew it would.”
“Ulysses, what’s happening?” Perse replied with the same tone. “Why is he—”
“You don’t get it, Perse?” Her brother glared back at her. “He’s here to kill us all.”
“Smart boy.” Perse flinched at the casual threat… no, not a threat. He would kill them all, and that was it. “Although I would have settled for Matt and my sister. The family set is just a nice bonus.”
“Shut up, you creep!” Maggie’s finger twitched near the trigger. “I won’t miss next time!”
“Nothing personal, sis. It’s professional integrity. Killing’s more than a job to me, you know? It’s a passion project. I want a fresh start, a complete tabula rasa. Can’t do that when you made a liar out of me. You not dying? Not cool, sis. Not cool at—”
She answered by pulling the trigger, making Perse jump in surprise.
The bullet bounced off Jack’s forehead.
“Guess we’ll never be friends.” He hadn’t even flinched. “You know, Maggie, I never really felt anything for you. Neither for you, Sam, sweetheart. Or anyone. I never felt that, what do you call it? Connection to a fellow human being? Empathy.”
While Maggie stood there in shock at the sight, although not as much as everyone else, Jack’s hand moved to his sunglasses and tossed them aside. The sight paralyzed Perse in horror.
“Never felt it. Emotionally, physically. Not even with Dad. He tried father-son bonding time, but to me, he just was there. I didn’t hate him, didn’t love him, either. I always felt disconnected from the world around me, like a prop in my own life. A terrible feeling: incompletion.”
His eye sockets were empty, a black emptiness lit by two blue, smokeless flames.
“I’m complete now.” Flames began to spread over his skin as he spoke, his voice growing higher-pitched. Like cackling embers starting a raging inferno. “When my better half slipped inside me and ignited the magic in my soul, it filled the void. I’m half a man no more.”
What came next happened in the blink of an eye. Victor rushed to tackle Jack, throwing the table back; Maggie emptied her gun at her brother, screaming in rage and fury; Ulysses pulled Samantha and Perse inside, Mom moving to shield them with her body.
And then Jack set the world on fire.
A/N: thanks to my Patrons, Daniel Zogbi and Floodtalon. You can check their Magik profile and Floodtalon’s new quest submission, “The Prank War, I” in the Player Database and Quest Board respectively.
Also, would you kindly vote for Magik on topwebfiction at this link
(http://topwebfiction.com/vote.php?for=magik-online)? This website is just an insane traffic source right now.